Getting to the Roots of Pisco in the Foothills of the Andes

Day 20, 2023 Grand South America and Antarctica

Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023; Coquimbo, Chile

We almost made it to Argentina today, or so it seemed after a long two-hour bus ride into the Elqui Valley near the northern Chilean port of Coquimbo.

We traveled into what our guide called the coastal mountains – perhaps the foothills of the Andes, which you could see in the distance once the clouds lifted.

This is one of the transverse valleys that lie perpendicular to the north-south Andes range. Amazingly, there has been no rain here yet this year. Water comes from the runoff from the mountains to the east, and the lack of rain is evident in the low level of the reservoir we passed.

We finally arrived at a lookout just beyond the agricultural town of Paiguano. While we posed for photographs, our driver turned the bus around on the narrow highway with a steep drop off. We were glad to be on firm ground, with vineyards surrounding us and the Andes in the distance.

Next, we returned to Paiguano for a tour and tasting at the Aba Pisquera distillery. Pisco is a liquor made from muscat grapes such as Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez. After fermentation, the grapes are distilled.

As I wrote earlier, both Peru and Chile claim the cocktail Pisco Sour, which is made with pisco liquor, lime juice, simple syrup and an egg white, shaken without ice. A few drops of Angostura bitters may be added at the end.

Before we arrived in Peru, we received a Pisco Sour Advisory warning us to be cautious about where we consumed the drink, due mainly to the raw egg white. Mine so far have been in upscale hotels, with no dire results.

The distillery offered samples of bottled sours — made with mango, maqui berries or traditional. I loved the mango, but the fruit overwhelmed the pisco. I thought the maqui tasted too much like cough syrup. So I came away with a bottle of the traditional.

After the long ride back to the coast, we stopped to see the Monumental Lighthouse of La Serena, which was about to close at 2 p.m. I didn’t have time to sketch it, but will work later from a photograph.  We could see the Zaandam docked far across the bay in Coquimbo and slowly made our way there along the beach boulevard.

During our drive through the city, we passed an interesting statue of Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. From this area, she has been honored by many buildings, roads, and even statues.

Towering over the city is the Cruz del Tercer Milenio, or third millennium cross. It is the world’s third largest cross, at 285 feet tall (more than twice as high as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Some passengers not only walked up the hill, but also climbed to the observation deck on the horizontal arm of the cross.

Along the beach we watched locals collecting seaweed from the surf, drying it on the sand in preparation for sending it off to Japan. Opportunistic Pelicans hovered over the fish markets.